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Five tips to shoot from a helicopter

In recent years, aerial photography has taken off with the advent of drones. Living in Canada, the rules to fly drones are pretty drastic and flying legally is very complicated. So I turned to helicopters, which are much easier, albeit more expensive.

Shooting from a helicopter offers a different perspective than a drone, as you are much higher. For example, in downtown Toronto, we have to fly at 1,500 feet. So, it’s usually better for tall buildings or larger complexes. That being said, clients are interested, both for finished buildings and for backgrounds to insert 3D renderings for marketing.

Shooting from a helicopter can seem daunting, but with a few tips, you can easily get some great shots!

Faculty of Architecture

1. Get the smallest helicopter you can

In Toronto, most companies fly helicopters that can fit 4 people and the pilot. Those go for $1,300 to $1,500 per hour (pricing may vary in your market, and this is in Canadian dollars). However, when I’m alone, I use a company who has a smaller helicopter (Robinson R22) that only fit one person and the pilot. It costs $600 per hour instead. So do your homework, and make sure you have the cheapest option.

Harbour Plaza Residences

2. Ask to take the door off

The first time, it might be a little scary, but ask the pilot to take the door off on your side. It will give you a lot more room to manoeuver and it will allow you to shoot wider angles. It might take you a couple of flights before really hanging off the helicopter, but you’ll get there!

National Holocaust Monument

3. Bring two cameras

Since you’re flying with the door off, you can’t bring anything loose with you, and you definitely can’t change lenses. That can be an issue if you want wide angles and tighter shots. I recommend bringing two cameras. I usually have one with my 16-35mm and one with my 24-70mm, but depending on what you’re shooting, you might want a telephoto. Just make sure they both have solid straps and leave the lens caps/hoods in the car.

Toronto

4. Shoot in Shutter Priority mode

I found that shooting around 1/500s or 1/1000s works great for me. To do that, I shoot in shutter priority and using auto ISO. I also tend to shoot in burst mode, to make sure I can have all the angles I can get (since the helicopter is always moving).

Berczy Park

5. Use AF-C focus mode

Focusing is definitely harder when you’re on a moving helicopter. I find that shooting in AF-C mode works best. I also make sure I refocus often, to make sure the camera isn’t stuck on the wrong building, or in case it missed focus in the first place.

Toronto

I hope these tips are helpful. Aerial photography is amazing and shooting from a helicopter with the door off is nothing like using a drone.

If you have any questions or additional tips, just leave a comment!

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